Former ministers not sufficiently clear on anti-corruption rules, watchdog warns

Lord Pickles made the intervention after ruling former health minister Steve Brine had breached the rules.

Geraldine Scott
Monday 24 January 2022 21:36
Lord Pickles (Ben Birchall/PA)
Lord Pickles (Ben Birchall/PA)

Not all former Government ministers are “sufficiently clear” on the standards of behaviour, rules and legislation they are bound by after leaving top jobs, an anti-corruption watchdog has warned.

Lord Pickles chairman of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (Acoba) has said he is “increasingly concerned” about the behaviour, after former health minister Steve Brine failed to seek advice on an outside role until after he had taken up the job, in a breach of the rules.

Mr Brine, who was paid £19,992 a year for 96 hours of work by Sigma, a pharmaceutical company, then asked Nadhim Zahawi who was then vaccines minister, to take part in a webinar in February 2021 organised by the firm and hosted by Mr Brine, letters released on Monday showed.

In the documents, Mr Brine said Mr Zahawi had been aware the event was being hosted by him when the minister agreed to attend.

Stephen Brine (Chris McAndrew/UK Parliament/PA)

Former health secretary Matt Hancock also took part in one of the webinars hosted by Mr Brine in June 2021.

Lord Pickles said that while he had “no doubt Mr Brine believed contacting the Government on Sigma’s behalf was appropriate” he had “reasonable concern” that he was only able to make “direct engagement” with Mr Zahawi because of his former Government job.

He said: “I do not consider it was in keeping with the letter or the spirit of the Government’s rules for a former minister at DHSC to contact a minister with responsibility for health on behalf of a pharmaceutical company which pays him”.

Winchester Conservative MP Mr Brine, in correspondence with Acoba, admitted he had “made a mistake, by a few weeks” in not consulting the body before taking up the job and said he could “only apologise again for poor admin on my part”.

He said his interests were properly registered and that “no lobbying on behalf of Sigma took place” but Lord Pickles said these were different rules and that “it is a former minister’s personal responsibility to understand” which guidelines they must abide by.

Mr Brine said: “More widely, I feel it is important to point out that any attempts in the media designed to smear members of Parliament demean the entire political process and the reputation of decent people.

Angela Rayner (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

“At all times I have acted with respect for the, albeit often complex, rules that rightly exist to regulate any outside interests we have.”

Mr Brine, who was a health minister between 2017 and 2019, added that his role with Sigma ended in November 2021.

But in a letter to Cabinet Office minister Steve Barclay, Lord Pickles said he was “growing increasingly concerned that not all former ministers of the Crown are sufficiently clear on the various standards of behaviour, rules and legislation that are incumbent on them.”

Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner, who wrote to Lord Pickles about the case, said: “From the revolving door to crony contracts, the scandals just keep mounting for a Conservative Party mired in sleaze from the Prime Minister down.

“Even the Government’s in-house committee is ‘increasingly concerned’ about the behaviour of former Tory ministers and has called on them to act.

“Labour will ban ministers for at least five years after they leave office and create a genuinely independent watchdog to enforce the rules, ending the days that Tory politicians could profit from privileged access, information and taxpayers’ money. Enough is enough.”

In a later statement, Mr Brine said: “At the outset of the biggest vaccination programme in our history I wanted to give the vaccine minister a chance to thank a vital part of the workforce but I understand the event has caused concern and as such accept entirely Acoba’s decision.”

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